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On the Use and Abuse of “Orality” for Art: Reflections on Romantic and Late Twentieth-Century Poiesis
Maureen N. McLane
It is not an overstatement to say that, in the last decades of the eighteenth and the first decades of the nineteenth centuries, almost every major British literary poet found him- or herself engaging with oral tradition, as well as with the figure of the oral poet, his work, his cultural position, and his method of composition. Oral tradition acquired new status not only as a legitimate fund of cultural authority but also a resource for the making and annotating of “original,” literary poetry.1 The image of the oral poet, moreover, fired the Romantic imagination—whether this poet was imagined as Ossian, “the last of his race,” purported bard of third-century Scottish warriors,2 or as a seventeenth-century “last minstrel” singing his dying
On the changing and disputed cultural status of oral tradition[s] in British literary culture, see in particular Trumpener 1997. With respect to Scotland in particular, and its simultaneous idealization and degradation of “the oral,” see Fielding 1996. On the controversy attending the Ossian poems, published by James Macpherson throughout the 1760s, there is an ever-growing bibliography. To examine further the cause of this furor, see Macpherson 1996. For a lucid and measured survey of the Ossian controversy, its “three phases,” and more broadly of Macpherson’s career, see deGategno 1989. The impact of “Ossianism” on eighteenth-century literary culture is signaled in Fiona Stafford and Howard Gill’s From Gaelic to Romantic: Ossianic Translations (1998). Stafford has written extensively on Macpherson, his career, the Ossian poems, and their reception: see, for example, Stafford 1988 and 1994:ch. 4. Trumpener 1997 offers a compelling analysis of the cultural politics of the Ossian controversy, Samuel Johnson’s role in fomenting it, his famed hostility to Scotland, and more particularly his rejection of oral tradition. That the cultural politics of Ossian remain volatile is evident in the collection of fiercely partisan [pro-Macpherson] critical essays gathered in Gaskill 1991.
strains to defeated Scots nobles, or as a contemporary Highland lass singing as she reaped.3 In the following pages I propose to discuss what has been called “the romance of orality”4 as a particularly lively and vexed opportunity for literary poets, both romantic and contemporary. For writers such as Walter Scott, Thomas Moore, Robert Burns, and William Wordsworth, ancient ballads and contemporary oral traditions offered a kind of poetic archive, a resource both for writing their own poetry and for theorizing the cultural work of poetry. There is by now a critical consensus that British Romantics, like their German counterparts, turned to ideas of the primitive, organic culture, folk essence, and fantasies of childish or völkisch naïveté in their efforts to rejuvenate what they saw as a hidebound art: this is one way to understand, for example, the elevation of the ballad in the late eighteenth century. This romance between highly cultivated literary poets and the primitive, however defined, must equally be seen as a romance with orality. To map fully the longstanding literary romance with orality—a romance that still persists, as I will later argue—is a task that exceeds the scope of this essay; we can, however, begin to sketch the contours of some of its constitutive aspects. In recent decades, scholars have reanimated the “scandals of the ballad,” to use Susan Stewart’s phrase: controversies involving disputes over authenticity, fakery, and forgery; the status of oral tradition and manuscript evidence; and national and otherwise partisan styles of editing and scholarship.5 The historicist and materialist turn in contemporary literary studies helps us to see how these eighteenth-century scandals—fueled by the success of James Macpherson’s Ossian poems, Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), Chatterton’s
For a discussion of the image of “the last bard” and the trope of “the last of the race,” see Stafford 1994:espec. ch. 4 and ch. 7. Among the many such representations, Walter Scott’s “Lay of the Last Minstrel” (1805) was the most commercially successful. The poem as cited here is from the 1830 edition of The Poetical Works of Walter Scott, together with the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (Scott 1830). Further references to the poem will be cited in text by canto and stanza. In McLane 2001. I have since discovered that in her wonderful Writing and Orality (1996) Penny Fielding uses the same phrase, observing that when the “romance of orality” is “constructed by a dominant ideology it begins to look suspiciously like writing” (10)—that is, as fixed, authoritative, monologic, and culturally hegemonic. Some oralities, that is, are better than others, and in a “graphocentric society” (10), it is the elite literati who sift and determine the values and meanings of the oral.
5 4 3
Stewart 1994:espec. ch. 3 and ch. 4.
USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART
fabricated Rowley poems, and numerous ballad collections—emerged within a context of cultural nationalism (e.g. in the Ossian controversy, which pitted Scottish literary nationalists against English chauvinist foes like Samuel Johnson), changing copyright law, and new institutions of print capital.6 The editors and literary imitators of “ancient ballads” presented their works in book form to literate, cultivated audiences; these literary productions explicitly concerned themselves with the problem of representing, theorizing, and historicizing “orality,” including such features as composition-in-performance, communal memory, folk tradition, oral transmission, and mediation. Particularly striking is the development, in the work of such antiquarians as Thomas Percy and later Romantic poet-editors like Walter Scott, of preliminary and controversial “oral theories” of poetry, including theories about the “ancient minstrels” who purveyed ballads and romances.7 The figure of the minstrel, reconstructed and reinvented in the mid-eighteenth century, emerges as one type of the oral poet; he also emerges, in antiquarian and romantic discourse, as the figure of poetic obsolescence and decay.8
For trenchant accounts of these scandals and their implications, see Stewart 1994, which emphasizes the historical-material conditions of literary production, and Trumpener 1997, which focuses on the dialectic between imperialism and cultural nationalism. Groom 1999 offers not only a thorough account of Percy’s project but also invaluable reflections on the theoretical implications of Percy’s edition, which Groom characterizes as “a three-volume anthology of ballads, songs, sonnets, and romances . . . probably the finest example of the antiquarian tendency in later eighteenth-century poetry. It is also symptomatic of the emerging discipline of scholarly editing. It dramatizes the encounters between literate and oral media, between polite poetry and popular culture, and between scholarship and taste” (2). See Groom 1999 as well for the religious and nationalistic animosities fueling the antagonism between partisans of Percy and those of his scourge, the antiquarian and editor Joseph Ritson. For Percy’s musings on English minstrels, see Percy 1886/1996:Appendix I. For further reflections on Percy’s minstrel theory, see Groom 1999:espec. 61-105. For Scott’s account of minstrel poetry, see Scott 1830:5-16. On the revivification of minstrels and “minstrel origins theory,” see Stewart 1994. As Groom writes, “Minstrels . . . were oral poets” (1999:99). The minstrel offered Percy an image of the English oral poet that could, in colonialist fashion, subsume and trump images of Welsh and Scottish bards; English minstrelsy was also a mechanism for gathering and nationalizing local and regional poetic traditions within England. Groom notes further that “Minstrels also developed at the margins of orality and literacy. By plotting the borders, Percy melded together a national tradition, and clarified Englishness” (100).
8 7 6
He is the reverse of Walter Scott in his defects and excellences” (156). “Mr Wordsworth is the most original poet now living. Who sung of Border chivalry. and the OralLiterate Problematic Ventriloquizing and Historicizing Orality: Scott’s Minstrelsy The last of all the Bards was he. Recent scholarship on eighteenth. 7-12 Some essential texts informing this discussion. Finnegan 1992. and transmission? The early work of Walter Scott and William Wordsworth will help us to meditate on. some of these questions. oral theory and media theory help us to reflect further on the processes of mediation (for example. And he.9 And thus we might ask: how was orality harnessed to romantic poetry? What discursive functions did an invocation of “oral communication” or “oral tradition” perform? What kind of authority was imagined to inhere in such invocations? What did the imagined fate of orality have to say about the fate of literary poetry? How did the turn to orality inform literary poets’ poems as well as their notions about performance. Hazlitt’s remarks (1930): “Walter Scott is the most popular of all the poets of the present day. Both of these poets. especially early in their careers. Scott and Wordsworth offer—in their divergent approaches to oral problematics and literary poiesis—exemplary cases. Mediation. for example. and Nagy 1996. neglected and oppress’d. Havelock 1986. Goody 1977. For. .10 Representing Orality: Romantic Poiesis. composition. are Ong 1982. . transcription. Lay of the Last Minstrel. His tuneful brethren all were dead. welladay! their date was fled. Introduction to Canto I. He has none of Mr Wordsworth’s idiosyncracy” (154). 10 9 . Wish’d to be with them. Walter Scott. if not answer. in addition to those already mentioned. mediation. and deservedly so. See. and other forms of textual “fixing”) required by literary uses of orality. and at rest. printing. . And as poets considered by their contemporaries as well as ours to be representative of their age. were preoccupied with and stimulated by the problem of representing orality.and nineteenth-century literature has illuminated the cultural and political stakes of this turn.138 MAUREEN McLANE These developments may be seen as aspects of what we might call “the oral turn” in the literature of this period.
Scott took over from the antiquarians the reinvented minstrel—the professional transmitter of the oral-poetic tradition—and made him a historicizable mouthpiece. how it was fought. Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-3). If Scott’s literary work both displayed and discussed what Stewart calls “the literary selfconsciousness of antiquarianism” (1994:25). of minstrels. for example. His corpus is a long meditation on the end.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART 139 Walter Scott’s best-selling Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) offers one spectacular example of the uses to which orality could be put. . Or call his song untrue: For this. He knew each ordinance and clause Of Black Lord Archibauld’s battle-laws. in all senses. which in his case we might call the problematic of minstrelsy. when the minstrel interrupts his account of the English and Scottish warriors’ agreement to abide by the results of single combat “on foot” (xxxiii): XXXIV. other versions of it. Consider. In the course of The Lay. the jovial Harper. that scoffing tongue Should tax his minstrelsy with wrong. Such combat should be made on horse. Scott was the romantic writer who most thoroughly worked through and worked over the oral-poetic problematic. As “last of all the bards.” the minstrel is not only the figure of cultural obsolescence. his work also revealed the historiographic and ethnographic self-consciousness of early nineteenthcentury literature. He brook’d not. through his series of long narrative poems (The Lay of the Last Minstrel being only the first of several minstrelling romances). this passage near the end of canto 4. With brand to aid. taught Me. In guise which now I say. On foaming steed. of the defeat of traditionary Scottish culture: he is also the figure through whom Scott can both represent oral poiesis and chronicle its obsolescence. how he came to be fluent in it. In the old Douglas’ day. in their lay. I know right well. yet a youth. he. Full many minstrels sing and say. in full career. when as the spear Should shiver in the course: But he. when they the goblet plied. From his first collection. Scott’s minstrel has several ostentatiously self-reflexive moments when he pauses to reflect on his song. that.
The song tradition here as the historical tradition. then. Among the features worth remarking in this passage: 1. “Tuneful hands were stain’d with blood. his corpus. to competitive as well as communal making. within a song-culture: “I know right well . For the minstrel. This Lay also. there is no difference between historical and song traditions. to rivalry and combat. Memorial o’er his rival’s grave. . the minstrel implicitly acknowledges. In the very next stanza. . in fight they stood. An unapologetic rivalry emerges clearly as the engine of minstrelsy. of rivalrous making. yet his is the best. This past moment of learning is converted into the “now” of the minstrel’s saying: “In guise which now I say.140 MAUREEN McLANE And such rude taunt had chafed his pride. The minstrel’s participation in the competitive ethos of the warrior culture he celebrates: he trumpets his account as one different from. and he foregrounds its transmission. “the lay” of other minstrels.” and quite readily “slew” bardic adversaries—The Bard of Reull. . full many minstrels sing and say.” he insists that combatants met “on foot.” 2. The minstrel’s ready reference to and insertion of himself within a community of song-makers. to be an inherited one. If they claim “such combat should be made on horse. And tuneful hands were stain’d with blood. On Teviot’s side.” The minstrel.” 11 .11 3. replete with martial specifics. understands his lay as a re-creation of previous lays.” The minstrel understands his lay. Where still the thorn’s white branches wave. and not incidentally. whatever “many minstrels” may “sing and say. 4.” His account is one among many. apparently cheerfully. is over: the Gregory Nagy (1996:4) argues that the “mimesis” of oral performance should be understood as “dramatic re-enactment. and superior to.” The minstrel’s competitive spirit is as traditional as his lay: as he says.” his former student declares. The Lay thus announces its commitment to praise and blame. his own teacher refused to tolerate “scoffing tongue[s]. The minstrel’s representation of his narrative as a tradition learned from another: a “jovial Harper” “taught” him while “yet a youth. allies a history of Scottish poetry—as much as Scottish history—with a warrior ethos and transparent masculinity. however. a saying of the same again. . . the minstrel acknowledges that the romance of continuous transmission.” battling “hand to hand. The Bard of Reull he slew.
How Ousenam’s maidens tore their hair. interiority. The minstrel is inevitably a figure not only of the past or of the proleptically past but of the contemporary poet’s method. taking it out of the mouths of singers and the realm of immediate audiences and into the domain of writing and manuscript or print circulation. mediums par excellence. If in himself the minstrel bears the mark of orality and indeed of the residual itself. of the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. personhood. Wept till their eyes were dead and dim. the modern poet both imaginatively and materially remediates minstrelsy. the triumph of print culture and. with envy heard before. lack individuality. The lament for the “master” is also a lament for minstrel.and warriorculture. My jealousy of song is dead. the end of productive rivalry: “my jealousy of song is dead. they are the vectors of culture. Minstrels. the Romantic poet allowed himself to explore his proximity and distance from minstrel-making and minstrel-culture. song-culture. and the ascendancy of empire. To the cold silent grave are gone. in the broadest cultural and political sense. which had heretofore guaranteed the meaningful singing of his song: XXXV. one by one. In presenting and representing minstrels. and its rivalrous ethos—an image the particulars of which contemporary oral theory seems to confirm. with my minstrel brethren fled. Scott develops a theoretically informed and powerful image: that of a native-informant minstrel-maker who can report and meditate as it were “authentically” on oral poetry.” It is striking to see that signal Romantic lament—“And I. both literary and historiographic. And I. And grieve that I shall hear no more The strains. Why should I tell the rigid doom. the literary representation of the minstrel depends upon his supercession. That dragg’d my master to his tomb.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART 141 minstrel has outlasted his community. that is. The minstrel exists as an “I” only inasmuch as he emerges as one of a minstrel band. moreover. . For. alas! survive alone”—emerge in this context. Who died at Jedwood Air? He died!—his scholars. Having his minstrel reflect on his cultural predicament. In writing minstrelsy. subjectivity. alas! survive alone To muse o’er rivalries of yore. And wrung their hands for love of him.
the Aged Man. oral or literary. and wand’ring long. again began. destined for a literate audience of thousands—an audience of men as well as women. On the poet’s concern for audience. bound as it eventually was in printed books. of Englishmen as well as Scotsmen. Dejectedly. At the level of minstrel metaphorics. of learned as well as unlearned readers. Encouraged thus. diffident of present praise. If they approved his minstrelsy. 84-100): Amid the strings his fingers stray’d. continued (end of Introduction. performance is an arduous task. differentiating. consider the hapless minstrel at the end of his first “fitt” (end of Canto I. doubling. In such a passage. Somewhat he spoke of former days. After meet rest. whether ancient or modern. For this minstrel. And oft he shook his hoary head. hesitantly begun and then ecstatically. merchants. and with its swell The Master’s fire and courage fell. Scott creates a space for constituting. and farmers as well as aristocrats. Canto I. and indeed historicizing the relation of poet-toaudience. academics. The Duchess. And how old age. Scott thus marks the historical distance between the situation of the minstrel’s recitation and his own poem. Gave praises to his melody. Scott takes great pains to represent the oral poet’s embodied relation to the audience (notably marked as both noble and female). . albeit erratically. And an uncertain warbling made. italics mine): Here paused the harp. in due degree. and her daughters fair. And. And much they long’d the rest to hear. Each after each. And every gentle lady there. in every eye. Had done his hand and harp some wrong. he bow’d. and low. a relation in which face-to-face contact and immediate somatic feedback are the conditions of recitation and performance.142 MAUREEN McLANE The Lay of the Last Minstrel is also a witty and yet disturbingly knowing meditation on virtually every anxiety of the poet. His hand was true. And. then. He seemed to seek. his voice was clear. of lawyers. gazing timid on the crowd.
or frame. He swept the sounding chords along. In the full tide of song were lost.” at various dynamics (“soft or strong”). which might make readers aware of the object. and the introduction of whom betwixt the cantos. audible voice. .” barely able to get his harp tuned and his measures flowing—nevertheless the poem ultimately articulates its primary narrative content through this decrepit figure. The poet’s glowing thought supplied. soft or strong. And. His toils. whom Scott tells us he introduced as a “prolocutor” or “pitch-pipe” meant to help modern readers more easily swallow the legendary stuff of the poem. Each blank in faithless memory void. were all forgot: Cold diffidence. his playing. The present scene. his “ecstasy. and smiled. of the publication.” 12 .” his anxious consciousness of the audience. as an appropriate prolocutor. of the time. through the medium of Scott’s own highly regulated measures. This species of cadre. characteristically. or rather the tone.12 Such a passage relies. and age’s frost. cast in writing and ultimately print. The old man raised his face. by whom the lay might be sung. his “uncertain warbling. 143 Scott’s intense focus on the minstrel’s activity—his tuning up. finally catching “the measure wild. . however. I therefore introduced the figure of the Old Minstrel. if we are silently reading the lay. the passage immediately above) and a variable ballad stanza for For Scott’s decision to use the minstrel as a framing device. place. a constitutive mediation: Scott represents the minstrel’s strumming “in varying cadence. afterwards afforded the poem its name of ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel’. And lighten’d up his faded eye.” his intermittent depressions throughout the lay—casts a strange and ambiguous halo over the poem. while his harp responsive rung. the future lot. his wants. If the poem often condescends to this minstrel—“infirm and old. on a kind of poetic filter. might remind the reader at intervals.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART But when he caught the measure wild. or spoken. With all a poet’s ecstasy! In varying cadence. in a more or less standard English. for example. his physical movements. We note as well that Scott differentiates his own framing narration from the minstrel’s recitation by means of meter: he uses the octosyllabic “minstrel couplet” in the framing passages (see. . ‘Twas thus the Latest Minstrel sung. and circumstances of the recitation. unaccompanied by harp or even. see his “Introduction to ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel’” (1830:315): “I entirely agreed with my friendly critic in the necessity of having some sort of pitch-pipe.” Such a picture emerges.
in Bakhtin’s sense. The oral problematic of minstrelsy is. yet another story: that of the disjunction between the minstrel’s hesitant. grammatical. supernatural interventions. the “then” within the narrative present. Scott both borrows from minstrelsy (using its characteristic couplet form) and differentiates himself from it (having his minstrel recite in another meter). the time of composition. if any. for in literature the primary category in the chronotope is time” (85). effortful recitation and Scott’s confident handling of it. the poem tells. on the level of poetic representation. Simultaneously historicizing the minstrel and analogizing with him. the time of revision. what James Chandler would have us call his “case”:14 See Bakhtin (1981). that is. Characteristic of Scott’s minstrelsy is its orchestration of several temporalities: the “now” of narrration.” see Chandler 1998:espec. the historicity of poetry and its mediations. and so on. between these narratological temporalities. Scott’s representation of the minstrel as medium authorizes the lay precisely by historicizing his situation. then. the distance. and psychohistorical senses of the term “case. The minstrel. Scott’s confident authority depends precisely on our not taking the minstrel as the proper analogue for the modern poet. his account of his master’s death). who observes that “it is precisely the chronotope that defines genre and generic distinctions. and the cultural conditions of the poet. If Scott’s conspicuous fluency differentiates him from the minstrel. Scott’s Lay vividly enacts what it encodes—to wit. ch. 4. the minstrel offers a parable of the modern poet’s imminent obsolescence. practices clearly marked as oral poiesis. the time of successive editions.144 MAUREEN McLANE the minstrel’s own recitation (see. On the level of metrics. nevertheless he also raises the inevitable specter of the minstrel as his own double. for example. Scott emerges as a particular kind of poet in The Lay—a poet who makes poetry out of historically obsolete and yet picturesque poetic practices. 14 On analyzing literary works as “cases. the time of notes and addenda. and romance triumphant.13 If the minstrel is the medium of the lay. Singing on the edge of an abyss (his “date was fled”). Scott’s historiographically informed poetry develops chronotopical complexities that anticipate those of his historical novels. offered him a multivalent figure to think with and through. 13 . The Lay of the Last Minstrel is predicated on a trope of simultaneously conjunctive and disjunctive analogy. to mean the constitutive configuration of space and time within a literary work as well as the time-space relationships generated between the work and its compositional context. If The Lay contains a narrative about border feuds. the time of any framing narration. the problem of the chronotope of poiesis—“chronotope” used here. from this angle. as well as a meta-narrative of historical change. as both like and unlike Scott.” in the full casuistical.
notably William Hazlitt. is exactly what constitutes the space of recitation in The Lay. 145 This trope of the fled “date. what an excellent mimic is to a great actor” (1930:155). . rigorous advocate and preserver of its cultural value and poetic richness. and ours—find such alternately lugubrious and pugnacious renderings of the end of minstrels and of Scottish local culture to be. consider the following: “there is a modern air in the midst of the antiquarian research of Mr Scott’s poetry. and many critics—both Scott’s contemporaries. in his Border Minstrelsy. he also showed himself. It is history or tradition in masquerade. Who sung of Border chivalry. “fled.” The minstrel is himself conscious of his fled date: as we have seen. / The unpremeditated lay. He has just hit the town between the romantic and the fashionable. slick appropriation. his date “fled. to be a passionate. I conceive that he is to the great poet. secured all classes of readers on his side. In a fuller investigation of Scott’s romantic orality. and that the noble ethos of poetic competition has faded: “my jealousy of song is dead. . It is impossible to avoid the question of the good faith of such a representation.” this rather doleful specimen sings a lay that is doubly “of the Last Minstrel”—a lay sung by him but also. the lay of the last minstrel is “of” him in yet a third sense. The punning condensation in the preposition “of” offers an allegory in miniature of Scott’s interest in the pre-position of the poet. a canny.” Remembering days when he used to pour out “to lord and lady gay. For a sample of Hazlitt’s criticism. he laments within his narration that his brethren are all dead. In a word. and between the two. by virtue of Scott’s astonishing poetic and historiographic fluencies. one would wish to explore thoroughly his multivalent responses to and uses of the oral-poetic traditions he himself declared were dying off. at best.” the chronotope of a hazily but decidedly past past in a ruined. and perhaps the only lay the last minstrel now possesses. part of his minstrel-stock. 15 . The minstrel’s pathos resides in his being residual. a placed saturated by the traumatic marks of time. a lay about him. For welladay! their date was fled.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART The last of all the Bards was he. . haunted place. in the poet’s case.” or dead. a masquerade capitalizing on shallow nostalgia while sating the public’s lust for picturesque sentiment. manners.15 Yet if Scott ventriloquized oral poetry in The Lay. and lore. Inasmuch as the lay is his lay.
loss. Familiar matter of today? Some natural sorrow. Of “The Solitary Reaper. That has been. And. Scott largely confined his reflections on the use of orality to his notes and commentary. As Peter Manning has reminded us. Manning 1990:ch. far-off things. Wordsworth approached the question of oral-poetic problematics from another angle. trenchant essay offers a historicist corrective to and complication of Geoffrey Hartman’s previously dominant reading of the poem as another Wordsworthian movement of consciousness. the last line being taken from it verbatim. For an illuminating distillation of the historical and material distances that oral poetry could travel. consider one of Wordsworth’s best-known poems. Such stanzas may be read as Wordsworth’s astonishingly economical and lovely engagement with Romantic orality. The music in my heart I bore. 11.” See his note to the poem in Curtis 16 . Long after it was heard no more. And battles long ago: Or is it some more humble lay.146 MAUREEN McLANE Mediating Orality: Wordsworth’s Close Encounters of an Oral Kind If Scott rendered oral recitation as pageant and spectacle. but more directly from “a beautiful sentence” in his friend Thomas Wilkinson’s manuscript. but Wordsworth often made oral-literate transactions the very “matter” of his poetry. with minstrelsy a vehicle for a picturesque rendering of cultural history. And o’er the sickle bending. as I mounted up the hill. Thanks to Ann Rowland for referring me to Manning’s essay. and may be again? Whate’er the theme. I saw her singing at her work. or pain.” Beholding “yon solitary Highland Lass. Wordsworth in the third stanza bursts forth impatiently (1946:77. “The Solitary Reaper. Tour in Scotland written by a Friend. “This Poem was suggested by a beautiful sentence in a MS.” and enjoining us to do so as well. Tours to the British Mountains. Manning’s elegant. ll.” Wordsworth remarked. 17-32): Will no one tell me what she sings? Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow For old. the Maiden sang As if her song could have no ending. Wordsworth worked up this poem not from an actual encounter recalled from his and Dorothy’s 1803 tour of Scotland.16 That a poem presenting a personally experienced.— I listened till I had my fill. unhappy.
or Highlanders’ oral poetry (or. and adds that his “Tours to the British Mountains (London.18 a tale of “old unhappy. and may be again!” The ballad chronotope—the space-time configuration of oral poiesis—here emerges as temporally extensive (from “long ago” to a 1983:415: Curtis identifies the friend as Thomas Wilkinson. The almost absurd question. and felt delicious. The poetic economy here. ballad. but on the other hand. may be repeated in the future—she may well be singing of “pain / That has been. it also offers us the chance to read it as a melancholy methodological inquiry. familiar matter of today. Wordsworth’s eroticizing of her. long after they were heard no more’ [p. For a minutely detailed and impassioned account of the class politics of folksong. romantic ballads. In Scott’s “Introduction” to Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1830:36) he identifies the “three classes of poems” included in his collection: historical ballads. the sweetest human voice I ever heard: her strains were tenderly melancholy.” his unrepresented transformation of source materials in generating a lyric of represented spontaneity. and so on. Wordsworth’s source reports—but in this temporal ambiguity: the ballad may gesture back to time immemorial or may equally commemorate “today’s” news. 18 17 . workers’. see Harker 1985. is obviously rich and potentially disquieting. “Will no one tell me what she sings?” propels a set of provisional responses and meditations on ballad genres: “what she sings” may be a “historical ballad” (to invoke Scott’s taxonomy). his taking of his “fill” at the expense of “her work.17 If the poem lends itself to readings as a romantic expropriation of women’s. news that. his focus on her song as his pleasure. material and metaphorical. 12]. in a less sinister gloss. moreover. far-off things.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART 147 unmediated (if vexing) overhearing of oral lyric had its origins in—and drew its closing line from—another tourist’s written document only begins to suggest the always already fictive and “written” nature of “oral” encounters as they appear in Romantic poetry (not to mention the textually mediated vision of all eighteenth. / And battles long ago”. the song may be a “more humble lay.” The mysteriousness of the song lies not only in its linguistic inaccessibility—the Highland lass sang in Erse (Scottish Gaelic). the passage reads: ‘Passed a female who was reaping alone: she sung in Erse as she bended over her sickle. 1824) circulated among friends in MS. and imitations of these compositions by modern authors.and nineteenth-century tourists). for years before it was published. Critics such as Dave Harker have made us especially alert to the appropriations and expropriations of workers’ culture by non-laboring literati. as an obfuscated appropriation of a friend’s manuscript).” A fuller account of this poem would have much to say about the exoticism of the Highland girl.
Scott emphasizes the institutional situation. not singing. the semantic import does not. to be more precise. Wordsworth’s poem. unprofessional. sung for none other (she thinks) than herself. as a performance in print of transformed and ostentatiously imperfect transmission. between measures and melody on the one hand—her “plaintive numbers”—and the verbal and thematic content of her words. “Solitary Reaper”: sung song becomes artifact. perhaps nostalgic.148 MAUREEN McLANE possible future “again”) but spatially restrictive: Wordsworth offers in the Highland singer an image of a traditional culture recreating itself over time. communal inheritance—an inheritance. what she sings. Wordsworth’s lass seems to know her song as it were unconsciously: her work is reaping.” solitary as the tree in the Immortality Ode. see Bronson 1959:ix: “ Question: When is a ballad not a ballad? Answer: When it has no tune. It is of course striking and characteristically Wordsworthian that she be “single in the field.” 19 . and song-matter. Wordsworth in “The Solitary Reaper” seems to anticipate an insight that later theorists. from time immemorial. his is a professional recitation bespeaking years of training and specialization. as only partially accessible—to Wordsworth. notably. The reaper’s “song” becomes. the “matter. it is the image. he appreciates. That such a community appears in the highly marked regional figure of a Highland lass should not obscure the general point of Wordsworth’s inquiry.19 “The Solitary Reaper” may be seen. song as a popular.” she is hardly individuated: Wordsworth is less interested in the oral poet than in oral poetry. Wordsworth finds in this song an occasion for meditating on the ambiguities of song. then.” The poem traces an allegory of translation and textualization but also of For a version of this dictum. Despite her being “single. Oral poetry here emerges not as the province of trained professional rivals (pace Scott’s minstrel corps) but rather as that haunting song that drifts through and between individuals. it was Wordsworth’s frequent strategy to meditate on the universal human through such “exotic” or “marginal” figures. If Scott’s minstrel emphasizes the work of learning his lay. That she sings. The Highland lass shows us another aspect of oral poetry. most notably Bertrand Harris Bronson. The tune carries. he cannot know. have also enunciated: that a ballad is a ballad only when it has a tune. song-transmission. In terms of ballad poiesis. of a rooted human community in its full temporal extension. The poem explicitly offers a splitting between music and meaning. represented as inaccessible—or. and her song comes unbidden. of course. Note that Scott’s minstrel has no expectation that any of his audience will go out and repeat his lay. the explicit cultural formation. the one that gives him terrible pause. of song culture.
professions. Wordsworth’s poems are often not so much poems about poetry as poems about the complex encounters between oral and literary poiesis. Long after it was heard no more. His most compact and penetrating exploration of oral-literate complexities—particularly those inhering in problems of textual mediation—may be found in the lyric he wrote as if to preface Macpherson’s Ossian poems. Having asked “what she sings. preferring to emblazon her figure and to rechannel her music into his lines. 3032): And. The poem offers us. the impasse between the reaping singer and the walking poet persists. the most vexed and famous orally based texts of the period. not her music but his. . a rebuke to fantasies of transparency and unobstructed mediation. with their scrupulously historicizing spectacle. as I mounted up the hill. in Wordsworth’s closing couplet.” having proposed possible answers. It is striking that Wordsworth focuses most on the poet’s preoccupation. the sung “now”) and inevitable passing. and of those cultures. This representation of listening and his insistence that we listen—“O listen!”—create an immediacy and a contemporaneity that Scott’s poems. however different these poems. given the frequency with which oral communications become the stuff of Wordsworthian lyrics—with their enunciators witting or unwitting providers of “matter”—we should both revisit and revise the New Critical dictum. Wordsworth leaves “the Vale profound” (ll. with “the matter”. abjure. we recognize in them a haunting by questions raised by oral poiesis. and individuals who produce it? Wordsworth’s “as if” delicately places the pivot of the poem between perpetual presence (the time of singing. The pathos of this encounter is figured.” Is this not the dream of poetry. Perhaps. he notably swerves from ventriloquizing the lass.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART 149 dispersal: she sings “as if her song could have no ending. of course. as it were. Yet it is appropriate that. The music in my heart I bore. not her matter but his reflections on the indeterminacy of the song’s matter. perhaps inadvertently.
a manuscript its muse. on a mountain height Loose vapours have I watched.” Wordsworth hovers between oral/aural and literate “strains” of poetry. Nor felt a wish that Heaven would show The image of its perfect bow. What has been left “blank” by Macpherson’s Ossian will be written in and over. while “the whole” stands uncoveted. ll. that the poem was in a sense always pre-textualized. of these finished strains? Away with counterfeit remains! Wordsworth naturalizes the process by which we receive poetry. Whether displayed or occluded. Wordsworth’s poem.” proposes in its title that Wordsworth’s “lines” be taken as a continuation of as well as a supplement to Macpherson’s work. of course. such textualizing operations were. which Wordsworth astutely diagnoses as a problematic of poetry itself. and forging. then. for example. We might also bear in mind. Wordsworth begins by offering natural similes as figures for poetic reception (1947:38. 1-12): Oft have I caught. particularly poetry that exists. practices central to Romantic traffic with the oral. over Scott’s later use of Coleridge’s “Christabel. “Written on a Blank Leaf of Macpherson’s Ossian. With ear not coveting the whole. plagiarizing. mediating practices: translating.” from which he derived license for his metrical and rhyming variousness and some lines in The Lay of the Last Minstrel—revolved around questions of textualization and other appropriative.150 MAUREEN McLANE Binding Mediations and Orality Redux: Wordsworth’s Ossian Unbound “The Solitary Reaper” shows Wordsworth thinking about the textualization he represents himself as enacting. The poem may be read as a commentary on the Ossian problematic. like Ossian’s. and indeed. editing. The major literary debates and scandals of the period—over the authenticity of Macpherson’s Ossian poems. upon a fitful breeze. . only in “fragments. as a further complication. What need. The “fragment” here is positively valued. what we know and what Wordsworth later acknowledged.” Figuring the reception of poetic “fragments” as a kind of overhearing of “far-off melodies. A part so charmed the pensive soul: While a dark storm before my sight Was yielding. that won Prismatic colours from the sun. Fragments of far-off melodies.
That there might be a fragment or partial remain of Ossian does. Wordsworth pits an ethic and a poetic of the authentic fragment against. In his apostrophe—“Spirit of Ossian!”—Wordsworth reopens the question of Ossian. Authentic words be given. That cleaves to rock or pillared cave. Macpherson. rendering him a presence in nature. Conjuring and appealing to his presence in a significantly conditional clause (“if imbound / In language thou may’st yet be found”). He stringently dissociates the “spirit of Ossian” from the texts through which he supposedly is heard. mysterious. in Wordsworth’s opinion. In concert with memorial claim Of old gray stone.:38-39. Having dispensed with . And for presumptuous wrongs atone. in a richly suggestive phrase.” Wordsworth’s apostrophe to Ossian’s spirit is a kind of disinterral. or none! In this central movement of the poem. with a difference. presenting them in reverse order. 17-30): Spirit of Ossian! if imbound In language thou may’st yet be found. and yet authentic core. having refused to name his translator/mediator (ibid. Wordsworth shows himself thinking through—in incredibly concentrated lines—the oral-literate problematic that the Ossian controversy made into a famously debatable topic. ll. Macpherson’s “finished strains” appear in rhyme as they did. “counterfeit remains” (akin to the unsought rainbow). If aught (intrusted to the pen Or floating on the tongues of men. who boldly invokes Ossian as poet. continue to intrigue Wordsworth. Interpret that original. remains unnamed—as if he shall remain nameless. in literary history—as “counterfeit remains. that is. through Macpherson’s “translations. Wordsworth tellingly reverses the operation of textualization to which Macpherson had subjected Ossian: we might say that.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART 151 In this astonishingly modulated and understated simile.” It is telling that the counterfeiter here. as if peeling away the “counterfeit” layers to reach the ineffable. Let Truth. a revivification. however. and high-born name. Where moans the blast or beats the wave. in spiritualizing Ossian. Wordsworth imaginatively reoralizes Ossian. Wordsworth deftly represents several layers of mediation. Albeit shattered and impaired) Subsist thy dignity to guard. stern arbitress of all.
even aside from Macpherson. Wordsworth privileges neither mode of transmission or fixing. / Albeit shattered and impaired. as one rounds through the poem’s arc. One wonders how exactly one might ascertain the authenticity of “authentic words”: original Ossianic words. Wordsworth traces very efficiently a romantic economy of poetic mediation and realization. this linguistic binding may be rendered orally (in the “tongues of men”) or may be textualized (“intrusted to the pen”).” or the paltry “aught” (anything) one might still find. he offers both.” The uncertainty of reference in this last apposition raises an intriguing question: is it the “tongues of men” that are “shattered and impaired.” Wordsworth further problematizes the question of any access to Ossian “in language. in which case “authentic words” would still be heavily mediated ones. the obscuring of what may yet actually “subsist. yet perhaps Wordsworth might have been satisfied by faithfully edited.152 MAUREEN McLANE Macpherson’s “finished strains. in a rapid parenthetical. as options. Musaeus. Wordsworth strenuously criticizes the distortions engendered by our longing for artifactual “wholes”—for “finished strains. Mute as a Lark ere morning’s birth. a problem of mediation. linguistic mediation of poetic spirit. The “spirit” appears as the raw material. rather. Is. could they be found or reconstructed. not only on “authentic words” but also on the state of men’s tongues and the reliability of human mediations. would be Gaelic. It is notable that language itself appears here as a binding. or indeed the “Spirit of Ossian” perhaps found “floating” there that is shattered? The question of Ossian hinges.” He recognizes that the problem of Ossian is. then. a medium. To consider whether Ossian “may’st yet be found” leads one to wonder whether he might be “intrusted to the pen / Or floating on the tongues of men. it is. stationed with his lyre Supreme among the Elysian quire. ascending up several layers of artifactualization. for the dwellers upon earth. It becomes apparent. fragmentary Ossianic translations.:39.” whether in oral or written form. 37-42): No tongue is able to rehearse One measure. ll. Orpheus! of thy verse. the driving pulse. In the first movement of the poem. that Ossian serves as a case for lost poetry in general (ibid. . it may be “imbound / in language”—this is the first. of poetry.” But we see that it is not the writing of oral poetry that vexes Wordsworth.
Yet Wordsworth’s catalogue of lost beauties leads him to a surprising interrogation (idem: ll. origins but no surviving poetic destinations. .” The poem then becomes a homage to and invocation of “Bards of mightier grasp!”—the “chosen few” who persisted. as well as Percy and Scott.” Only their names persist. however. responses. . Note that here Wordsworth explores the oral-poetic problematic as a problem not so much of authorship or source as of poetic work. 43-44): Why grieve for these. Full early to the silent tomb Have sunk. Wordsworth both diagnoses the melancholy and longing that fueled the antiquarian/historicist project and counterprescribes for it.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART 153 Ossian is thus the latest in a long line of poets whose “verses” are lost.” where the “author” of the lass’s song—like those of most Anglo-Scots and Gaelic ballads—is presumably anonymous. no longer “rehearsable. In the case of Ossian. no problem of origination. or musics—over vaster. Musaeus.” and. according to this poem. though past away The Music. . but no “original source. why grieve? To this Percy and Macpherson and Scott could have given extended. unnamed human and poetic losses: “[T]housands. in their . by severer doom. If it was the desire to provide a national epic and a heroic. Here. by severer doom. dignified past that fueled Macpherson. / Full early to the silent tomb / Have sunk. poems. with stunning economy. Yet Wordsworth objects to the emotional economy of antiquarian grief precisely because such grief privileges and fetishizes lost rarities—whether poets. and Orpheus. and extinct the Lay? When thousands. at Nature’s call. a winsome singer. albeit differently inflected. for this is truly an interrogation of the “griefs” that lead men to create bad “memorials” (ll. In this remarkable passage Wordsworth moves beyond his stern critique of counterfeiting and false finishing to criticize the psychocultural impulses propelling that bad project. in “Solitary Reaper. unsung. be indulged. though past away The Music. we have names and not works. more importantly. he poses the crux of his critique as a question. this longing—however profound—should not. Again. for example. indeed. and extinct the Lay? Well. most specifically the mediating work of cultural transmission. Here he foregrounds a different issue than he did. lost in the mists of time: Wordsworth there confronts a mysterious song. 43-47): Why grieve for these.
He “appears.” See Wordsworth’s extraordinary attack (1974:78): “Yet. The Son of Fingal. on Morven’s lonely shore. Even in these last lines Wordsworth keeps us alert to the problem of mediation: the final turn to Ossian—the “Son of Fingal”—is a conspicuously mediated apparition.:40. has ventured formally to imitate them—except the boy.” Not Ossian’s fragments but his spirit. Wordsworth analogizes (ibid. but not in textual body. in the least distinguished. on Morven’s lonely shore. verifiable existence but his continued fame preserved and sustained through “imperfect lore”: Wordsworth ends his lines here. In the closing lines of the poem. to the rugged Chief By fortune crushed. Dim-gleaming through imperfect lore.154 MAUREEN McLANE vocation. on their first appearance. we might add. such was blind Maeonides of ampler mind. 75-82): Such. whose influence he would elsewhere furiously and improbably deny. what is remarkable here is not only the turn to Ossian.20 Again. oral or not. and more broadly for any poet intent on a rigorous engagement with dubious but compelling “remains. Imagining poets in all ages and climes comforting their fellow men. ll. Such Milton. Yet this Ossian. not his historical. much as those pretended treasures of antiquity [Macpherson’s Ossian poems] have been admired. Transmission. or tamed by grief. Ossian is reclaimed and inserted into an ascending pantheon of poets whom Wordsworth addresses as his “Brothers in Soul!” In soul. and to the oral-literate problematic surrounding his purported works. Converting Ossian into a muse rather than a source. with the shadowy image of the barely and imperfectly mediated poet. Wordsworth rounds back to the Ossian problematic that underlies the whole and provides a reconstructed poetic genealogy for British poetry. / Dim-gleaming through imperfect lore. however shattered and impaired. no author.” 20 . they have been wholly uninfluential upon the literature of the Country. and textualization are the cruces of this poem. No succeeding writer appears to have caught from them a ray of inspiration. haply. Appears. Wordsworth reaches an uneasy reconciliation with Ossian. is the poetically powerful Ossian. but the terms and lines through which Wordsworth thinks and renders that problematic. proposing him as spiritual forebear rather than as fragmentary text. Chatterton. to the fountain head Of Glory by Urania led! In these closing lines.
”) and parenthetical options (e. on binding mediations.” the Lay of the Last Minstrel. were often taken “from the mouths” of contemporary singers and reciters. as in Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel. But perhaps we could refine these propositions by considering them. Was oral poetry a viable inheritance for literate poets? Again. whether oral or literate. especially for poets like Wordsworth who often employed vatic strains. then yes. then no. Wordsworth’s poem allows us to see that there is no Ossian. Was oral poetry dead? If “oral poetry” meant “minstrelsy. All poetry depends.” Ossian. there was a vital continuity from his edition of The Border Minstrelsy to his first “original work.. We also see that the invocation of Spirit is no transparent operation: the apostrophe—perhaps the stereotypical Romantic trope (O wild west wind. Wordsworth’s lines scrupulously enact the difficulty we have in “getting. . of unimpeded inspiration—“Spirit of Ossian!”—that Wordsworth most cannily argues his point: no poetry without mediation. the question has no one answer: for Scott. “tongues of men. we see that his commitment to the fragment rests on a complex theorization of literate mediations of the oral as well as on a nod to ongoing oral mediations (e.” sung by trained minstrels to Scottish aristocrats.g. With their qualifications and clarifications.” not to mention “getting to. however regrettably.” as Scott has it in the “Introduction to Popular Poetry” prefacing his Border Minstrelsy. These general propositions seem true enough. and so on)—immediately propels a conditional clause (“if imbound . For Romantic literary poets. One can only discriminate among kinds of mediation and kinds of remains (“counterfeit” or authentic).USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART 155 Such a poem allows us to rethink certain critical insights about Romanticism: for example.g. possible preservation by tongues or pen). and indeed no poetry. that it privileged a discourse of inspiration over imitation. If “oral poetry” meant “popular poetry. In a stunning paradox. representing orality required a confrontation with the cultural situation and historicity of poetry. oral poetry was not at all dead: the contents of the Minstrelsy. without mediation. . it is through the rhetoric of immediate access. immersed in as well as cultivating and commodifying Border song-culture. that it was preoccupied with notions of “spirit” and transcendence. O Derwent. as it were. Scott frequently notes. that it developed a poetics of the fragment. Orality Interminable: The Oral Turn in Contemporary Poetry Representing orality means theorizing orality.” “imperfect lore”). in an oral key: in such a poem as Wordsworth’s on Ossian. Yet Scott’s relation to Border .
albeit in newly mediated forms. On the question of viable encounters with orality. its focus on mediation—inaugurated a long imaginative exchange that we are still witnessing. Their work presents the by now familiarly paradoxical face of many modern literary movements: they strove. Wordsworth. which from one angle seemed decidedly past. moreover. the naive. ironizing. we find in the heart of high-cultural For an excellent recent collection of essays discussing poetry. whether rap is poetry. to “make it new. to borrow terms from Schiller. cultural. concerning the Highland lass’s enigmatic song: “will no one tell me what she sings?” I would argue that the romantic encounter with orality—its complex representations of and debts to oral poetry. however different their poems. Wordsworth’s work also reveals a profound recognition of a barrier—whether linguistic. historicizing hand and voice. or tales carried in the minds of vagrants they might encounter on the public way. poets as diverse as Scott. as a relation of the sentimental to the naïve. Particularly relevant to this discussion are the contributions of Bob Perelman (“Speech Effects: The Talk as a Genre. leaving aside that revealingly vexed and racialized controversy. aims. the traditional. and commitments. and Samuel Taylor Coleridge understood their balladry to be both innovations and interventions in what they saw as a moribund poetic state. even as he strains to transcend it: as he asks.” 360-78). His poems offer a savoring of such impasse. in the popular ballads they knew from childhood. It is striking that. or the songs their grandfathers knew. performance. This paradoxical movement. 21 . literate. Conspicuous in Scott’s works are his mediating. its privileging of ethnographic authority as a poetic resource. publishing poet and what he represents as his oral contemporaries. and the cultural and linguistic politics of contemporary poiesis. its exploration of song-culture and traditional forms like the ballad.” and did so by reviving and reworking what they saw as the old. or educational—between the modern. Among the traditional things ready for reworking was oral poetry. and yet from another was everywhere around them. of literary revivification through the romance of orality.156 MAUREEN McLANE lore and Border poetry may be read. Thomas Moore. persists in contemporary experimental poetry. see Bernstein 1998. the popular. in Ezra Pound’s words. or tunes sung by their nurses. as critics have on the front page of The New York Times.” 200-16) and Ron Silliman (“Afterword: Who Speaks: Ventriloquism and the Self in the Poetry of Reading. The drama of Wordsworth’s poems often arises from his represented recognition of just such a barrier.21 We can debate.
Perloff reads Antin’s exploratory poiesis as specially engaged with “opsis. . David Antin. and obsessional diatribe. In his introduction to “a public occasion in a private place. Evoking aspects of comic monologue. jazz improvisation. his pieces are intriguing examples of a reconstructed orality used to jump-start contemporary poetry. an occasion that.): For an illuminating discussion of Antin and the stakes of his work. extremely self-reflexive in his pieces.22 Antin is.” that is. for example. he claims. a truly improvisational poet who comes to events. he proudly declares in his opening lines. Antin gestures explicitly to the audience.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART 157 American poetry a telling turn toward the oral and toward theories of the oral. a reading in which “reading” becomes the name not for the practice of reading out words from books or manuscripts but rather for the occasion itself. This gesture is both an interactive solicitation—a thing said to the audience concerning the audience—and a theoretical proposition (ibid. to perform. with spectacle (289): “Performance . just the readiness to talk. . by definition. print. is unmediated by books. an art form that involves opsis: it establishes a unique relationship between artist and audience. has set himself the task of becoming a postliterate performance poet. and to be open to the occasion. meditating explicitly on his compositional choices and the stakes of his poetic gambits.” published in Postmodern American Poetry.” 22 . text. confessional poem. see Perloff 1981. is. with no prepared text. or writing (1994:231): i consider myself a poet but im not reading poetry as you see i bring no books with me thought ive written books i have a funny relationship to the idea of reading if you cant hear i would appreciate it if youd come closer Swerving here from “the idea of reading” to the problem of hearing. free association. Antin notes that he had been called to do a reading (1994:230): i had to explain that i wasn’t doing any reading any more or not at that time anyway that i went to a place and talked to an occasion and that was the only kind of poetry i was doing now but if that was all right with them id like to read with jackson maclow Antin thus announces a reading involving no reading. moreover.
“complete improvisation”. literary-minded peers. Antin’s performance poetry is not.158 MAUREEN McLANE i came here in order to make a poem talking to talk a poem which it will be other things being equal all “To make a poem” is now “to talk a poem”. and not least to Antin. what he is doing is making as he goes.” Antin has undertaken as a kind of meta-performance poetry a poiesis obviously informed by a deep literary sophistication that nevertheless privileges—or claims to privilege—the “composition-in-performance” one associates with oral poetry. And we can see that. page-bound communications read alone. . literary. this extreme pronouncement he then quickly and characteristically reworks (idem:234): ive said you cant possibly make a poem that isnt a complete improvisation say or something like that and then i figured as soon as i said it a week later i made exactly the opposite kind of poem because as soon as you take a position very forcefully youre immediately at the boundary of that position Antin constantly invokes the implicit contract between poet and audience. its “place. by allowing the printing and anthologizing of transcriptions of his poem-talks. Antin also embraces—notwithstanding his avoidance of conventional capitalization and punctuation—the same means of mediation and transmission as his more text-oriented. in private. . youre here at a private experience in a public place its what one expects of a poet isn’t it? Antin’s semi-serious characterization of poetry as a typically “private experience” relies on a literate.” Antin goes so far as to announce the death of all poetry that is not. in silence. Yet however much he has recourse to the oral. written. Antin explores the social situation of poetry. revising the contract as he names it (idem:236): . The contradictions of Antin’s project are obvious. bourgeois conception of poetry. the “saying of the same again” of traditional oral poetry: his works are not re-creations but rather one-timeonly improvisations. in which poems are imagined as intimate. who revels in paradox.” its status as “private” or “public. Using oral performance to confound the literate conventions associated with poetic experience. . on his feet. to be sure. as he claims his is. Antin’s poiesis is obviously a highly sophisticated meditation on poiesis as well as an apparently free-form “talk.
we might look at Jerome Rothenberg’s manifesto. what is important here is Rothenberg’s telling impulse to find in the “tribal/oral” an alternative to Western high-cultural models of art-making. to a greater tradition that includes. On this last point. “New Models. preliterate and oral cultures throughout the world. volatile analogy in the closing paragraphs of his essay. audience participation toward an ultimate democratization of the arts” (643). But in addition the poet-as-informant stands in the same relation to those who speak of poetry or art from outside the sphere of its making as do any of the world’s aboriginals. for the poet and artist. It is a question in short of the right to self-definition. Rothenberg. “the tribal/oral is a particularly clear model. New Visions: Some Notes Toward a Poetics of Performance. in an attempt to imagine a new. styling his new-modeled poet as a post-literate. a characteristic blurring of these Now published in Hoover 1994:640-44.23 Just as our understanding of oral poetry and performance has been illuminated by the conversation between philologists and anthropologists. with a sense of their connection to subterranean but literate traditions in civilizations both East and West. say. the oral. and. notably Victor Turner. sometimes as its central fact. makes a polemical. often referred to by the creators of 1960s happenings and the theatrical pieces that invited. no different from that to anthropology. Outlining this new paradigm. We observe here. Further quotations from the essay will be cited in text from this source. If it was the Romantics who first conceptualized the idea of “poet-asinformant.” first presented in 1977.” the postmoderns continue to find it compelling. Rothenberg calls for the dissolution of the artwork. Again. he notes. 23 . for an emphasis on process over product.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART 159 For another exploration of the contemporary uses of orality. It is by now a cliché that such avant-garde announcements of the death of art and literature are accompanied by an exaltation of the “primitive. for example. The antagonism to literature and to criticism is. on the part of the Native American militant. even coerced. as we can in eighteenth-century writing. more important for our purposes. and for the disappearance of the distinction between artist and audience. postmodern poetic practice free from literary constraints (640): The model—or better. the vision—has shifted: away from a “great tradition” centered in a single stream of art and literature in the West. native informant (644): The model switch is here apparent.” the collective. so too we see Rothenberg turning to anthropologists of ritual.
Such an extended. In his great drive to liberate artists from the shackles of convention. Rothenberg turns to his fantasy of precapitalist. and poets—long ago internalized a concept of poetry founded on the hegemony of print and the ideal of the fixed. whom we almost inevitably approach from the literate. should oral poets have been wary. In doing so. Asia. Postmodern poets. translator.24 poetics for him merges into the making of culture. it shows the way. and peoples. and relation to audience. what it lacks. Revolution of the Word: A New Gathering of American Avant Garde Poetry. 24 . capitalized side of the oral/literate boundary. and advocate of various world poetries and alternative poetics. what it needs. and predicaments. histories. critical apparatus. communitarian societies and ritual practices. analogy reveals how politically and ethically problematic the turn to the oral can be. at a particular moment in the late 1970s: yet his manifesto has clearly become a synecdoche for those interested in constructing a postmodern canon. to a new consideration of performance.” Rothenberg is focusing here on poetics. replicable artifact. It Among his many contributions. anthologist. America. alongside his own volumes of poetry. say. the romance of orality has proven to be surprisingly resilient. of course. for our purposes. his rhetoric ultimately lapses in its grotesque elision of actual aboriginal and Native American claims. for these poets. If natives should be wary of anthropologists. Europe and Oceania (1985). is the continuation of the romance of orality in this manifesto housed within the typeset. mass-produced pages of Postmodern American Poetry. and commodification. One could discuss such moments in this and other essays under the title “On the Use and Abuse of the Oral Native for Art. language. or Alan Lomax? What is notable. of Milman Parry. persisting through the birth of new media and the concomitant reorganization of old. and the democratization of culture. elitism. and an important recent anthology. invoke orality as a mode of critique: it reveals what most prevailing poetry is not. But Rothenberg’s analogy raises an interesting. perfected. As this necessarily brisk survey suggests. disquieting issue for students and theorists of so-called oral cultures. 1914-1945 (1974). are Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa. co-edited with Pierre Joris: Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry (Rothenberg and Joris 1995-98). however quixotic such a venture may be. And Rothenberg has been for decades a prominent and hugely influential compiler. if confused. Many of us—scholars. even more than their romantic forebears.160 MAUREEN McLANE terms into one another. thereby involving art-making in a political and ethical project. critics. poetries.
Norton. media. Vol. “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel: Notes toward a Historical Poetics. ed. poetry has always been. in the first instance. Bakhtin. Bakhtin. Charles Bernstein. M. Question.” In Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. by Paul Hoover. as Walter J. 26 Society of Fellows. The vitality of poetry will surely continue to depend on this ongoing negotiation between a history of linguistically based traditions—whether “oral” or not—and an embrace of new media. Ed. W.” In The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.25 Whether oral or literate or hovering in the twilight zone between the two. “a private occasion in a public place. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ed. an art of language. and trans. 84-258.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART 161 seems unavoidably true that. See Ong 1982:136-37. In The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads. pp. and Laura Slatkin for commenting on and improving every version of this essay and for her illuminating discussions of poiesis. New York: W. M. pp. M. by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. 230-46. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Celeste Langan for sharing her stimulating work on Walter Scott (2001). 26 This essay developed in conversation with several friends and colleagues: in addition to acknowledging my debt to their thinking and support. pp. I would like to thank Ann Rowland for directing me back to Wordsworth’s “Solitary Reaper” and to Peter Manning’s essay on the poem (1990). ix-xxx. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1. has displaced the primacy of text and print. we now live in a world governed by secondary orality—in which the oral/aural domain. newly mediated and amplified by electronic and digital technologies. Bakhtin 1981 Bernstein 1998 Bronson 1959 Ong discusses “secondary orality” (as opposed to the “primary orality” of peoples untouched by writing) in light of Marshall MacLuhan’s notion of the “global village”—the mass-mediated group-consciousness promoted by electronic. Harvard University References Antin 1994 David Antin. Bertrand Harris Bronson. 25 . Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. and now digital. Ong has suggested.
William Hazlitt. Culture.162 Chandler 1998 MAUREEN McLANE James Chandler. 5. ed.” Studies in Romanticism. Paul Hoover. by B. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Howe. and Social Context. Ruth Finnegan. Ossian Revisited. The Making of Percy’s Reliques. 1977. Penny Fielding. P. Poems. Edinburgh University Press. Orig. Ed. 15167. Havelock. ed. Boston: Twayne. M. ed. in Two Volumes. vol. New Haven: Yale University Press. Havelock 1986 Hazlitt 1930 Hoover 1994 Langan 2001 . Fakesong: The Manufacture of British ‘Folksong’: 1700 to The Present Day. Jared Curtis. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Writing and Orality: Nationality. England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism. Toronto: J. James Macpherson. In The Complete Works of William Hazlitt. Paul J. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Norton. W. and Other Poems. Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. Celeste Langan. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present. 1800-1807.” In Lectures on the English Poets. Edinburgh: Curtis 1983 deGategno 1989 Fielding 1996 Finnegan 1992 Gaskill 1991 Goody 1977 Groom 1999 Harker 1985 Jack Goody. Nick Groom. New York: W. Howard Gaskill. Eric A. Oral Poetry: Its Nature. The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Dave Harker. pub. and Nineteenth-Century Scottish Fiction. “On the Living Poets. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 40:49-70. Dent. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. deGategno. “Understanding Media in 1805: Audiovisual Hallucination in The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Significance. pp. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
Walter Scott. Peter Manning. Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Gregory Nagy.” In his Reading Romantics: Texts and Contexts. New York: Leavitt and Allen. “Lay of the Last Minstrel” (1805) in the 1830 edition of The Poetical Works of Walter Scott. together with some few of later date. Rpt.” In her The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. 1886. of Swan Sonneschein. McLane. “‘No More Margins’: John Cage. “‘Will No One Tell Me What She Sings?’: The Solitary Reaper and the Contexts of Criticism. “Ballads and Bards: British Romantic Orality. Ong. Revolution of the Word: A New Gathering of American Avant Garde Poetry. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ed. 288-340. London and New York: Methuen. Jerome Rothenberg. Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART Macpherson 1996 163 James Macpherson. The Poems of Ossian and Related Works. consisting of old heroic ballads. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. Stafford. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Rev. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. songs. 3 vols. 2 vols. together with the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. 241-72. 1914-1945. by Fiona J. and Pierre Joris. Europe and Oceania. ed. New York: Dover. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Walter J. Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond. Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry. Manning 1990 McLane 2001 Nagy 1996 Ong 1982 Percy 1886/1996 Perloff 1981 Rothenberg 1974 Rothernberg 1985 Rothenberg and Joris 1995-98 Scott 1830 . David Antin. Asia. Intro. pp. pp. America. Ed. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2nd ed. 98:423-43. by Henry B. . and the Poetry of Performance. M. Berkeley: University of California Press. and other pieces of our earlier poets.” Modern Philology. Wheatley. Ed. 311-54. New York: Seabury Press. pp. Marjorie Perloff. by Howard Gaskill. Thomas Percy.
164 Stafford 1988 MAUREEN McLANE Fiona Stafford. In The Prose Works of William Wordsworth. Vol. by E. Owen and J. Ed by W. 4. Stafford 1994 Stafford and Gill 1998 Stewart 1994 Trumpener 1997 Wilkinson 1824 Wordsworth 1946 Wordsworth 1947 Wordsworth 1974 . Amsterdam: Rodopi. B. The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. 3. London: Taylor and Hessey. Ed. . William Wordsworth. and Howard Gill. Supplementary to the Preface. The Last of the Race: The Growth of a Myth from Milton to Darwin. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Durham: Duke University Press. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Essay. . Vol. by E. Princeton: Princeton University Press. From Gaelic to Romantic: Ossianic Translations. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Tours to the British Mountains. W.” In her Bardic Nationalism: The Romantic Novel and the British Empire. pp. 67-127. Susan Stewart. de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire. Oxford: Clarendon Press. J. de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire. . London: Oxford University Press. Crimes of Writing: Problems in the Containment of Representation. eds. Ed. “The End of an Auld Sang: Oral Tradition and Literary History. Smyser. The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. William Wordsworth. Katie Trumpener. Thomas Wilkinson. The Sublime Savage: A Study of James Macpherson and The Poems of Ossian.
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